Do Critics Know Best?

Once upon a time many an author railed against the critics (and, two centuries ago, an author had good reason, as many if not most reviews – which in those days were conveniently anonymous – were astoundingly hostile, amounting to little more than exercises in invective spewed from the guts of jealous competitors).  Nowadays an author is glad to be reviewed at all.

But do we need reviews?  Do the opinions of others have any merit?  Edward Gibbon (he of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) felt one should have the confidence to review one’s own work – not in public: some modern writers have been known to submit favourable reviews of their work under another name – but as a matter of private study.  Who, he asked, can review a work more thoroughly than its author?

“The author himself is the best judge of his own performance; no one has so deeply meditated on the subject; no one is so sincerely interested in the event.”  He discarded even the responses of his friends: “I was soon disgusted with the modest practice of reading the manuscript to my friends.  Of such friends some will praise from politeness, and some will criticise from vanity.”  (In the 18th century, when he wrote, far fewer books were written, and the practice of reading to one’s friends was more conventional.)

Gibbon was, perhaps, especially fitted to the task of critical self-analysis: a formidably well-read and capable writer (he had been the classic sickly child, left to find his own way through his father’s library) he grew up proud, strong-minded and supremely confident.  Yet even he was taken aback by the success of his great oeuvre: “I am at a loss to describe the success of the work, without betraying the vanity of the writer.  The first impression was exhausted in a few days; the second and third edition were scarcely adequate to the demand,” he writes in his Autobiography.  “My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette.”

So was he right when he says ‘To hell with the opinions of others.  Trust only in yourself.’  Is that not better than trying to bend your work to others’ whims?

 A last word on Edward Gibbon – literally the last words of his autobiography.  A little wordy, perhaps, for today’s taste (especially when reading on screen) but there are less than 200 words here, so slow down a little, take him at reading-aloud pace, savour the 18th century prose, and ponder briefly on what he says.  Remember that these were the last words of his unfinished autobiography, which was published after his death on 16th of January, 1794.  One page earlier he had been musing:
“The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful.” At the age of twenty, one year is a tenth, perhaps, of the time which has elapsed within our consciousness and memory: at the age of fifty it is no more than the fortieth, and this relative value continues to decrease till the last sands are shaken by the hand of death.
This reasoning may seem metaphysical; but on a trial it will be found satisfactory and just.  The warm desires, the long expectations of youth, are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world: they are gradually damped by time and experience, by disappointment and possession; and after the middle season the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain; while the few who have climbed the summit aspire to ascend or expect to fall.
In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the crowds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writings.

Okay, that’s it for Gibbon.  No more.  Promise.